By Thomas S. Orwat Jr.
During the 1980’s, Brooklyn, NY – born guitarist Steve Stevens was one of the most popular and in-demand musicians in rock and pop music. As an integral member of the Billy Idol band, Stevens’ brilliant and distinctive guitar style was a major contributing factor in the multi-platinum selling and chart-topping success that Billy Idol experienced. And when Stevens collaborated with music and movie soundtrack composer, Harold Faltermeyer in 1986 on the “Top Gun Anthem,” it resulted in the duo winning a Grammy-Award in 1987, for “Best Pop Instrumental Performance.” Soon after, everyone from Michael Jackson to Robert Palmer demanded that Stevens’ unique guitar flair be incorporated into their songs. Stevens had so many guest appearance requests, that he had no choice, but to turn most of them down.
Stevens left the Billy Idol band in the late 80’s, to form his own group- “Steve Stevens’ Atomic Playboys.” In this band, Stevens was able to unleash his true sonic self by playing some of the most extreme and intense guitar of his career. Unfortunately this project failed to achieve the success that Stevens had hoped for, resulting in Stevens discontinuing this project.
Stevens then hooked up with former Hanoi Rocks vocalist, Michael Monroe. However, Monroe and Stevens clashed on the musical direction of the band. But shortly after, Stevens was recruited by Motley Crue’s Vince Neil, after Neil termination from Motley Crue. With Neil, Stevens recorded, in 1993, the hard-driving, glam-metal styled record, “Exposed.” But with the musical climate changing from rock to grunge, Stevens didn’t see much of a future with Neil, so he departed.
Stevens then took some time off to get sober and to get refocused and recharged. During this time, he rediscovered his passion for Flamenco guitar, and in 1999, released an outstanding instrumental record in this style entitled, “Flamenco a Go-Go.”
In 2001, Stevens and Idol reunited, and have remained together, touring and recording ever since. But Stevens still found time to release his third solo record, “Memory Crash” in 2008. This rock heavy, all-instrumental, eclectic, guitar master-piece showcased Stevens’ innovative fret board skills. “Memory Crash” proved that Stevens’ is truly one of the most gifted and skilled guitarist in rock music.
What follows is an exclusive Rock Music Star interview with Steve Stevens. During this conversation we talk about the many facets of his amazing career. So check out what Steve had to say, and if you are near Western New York, Steve will be performing will Billy Idol on June 4th at the beautiful Artpark concert facility in Lewiston NY. Tickets can be purchased here.
RockMusicStar: Steve, you just recently performed the classic Black Sabbath song “War Pigs” with Ozzy Osbourne on May 19th at a benefit concert. What did performing with Ozzy mean to you and how much fun was it?
Steve Stevens: It was great! At first, I thought that it would be cool that I would be playing with Ozzy, but then when we did sound check and I heard Ozzy’s voice, it was like “wow” and then it hit me that I was performing with Ozzy. It gave me goosebumps hearing his voice behind my guitar. So, it was really cool. Sharon and all of them were so cool. It was a great night and a cool vibe.
RMS: After watching that, I was thinking that an Ozzy & Steve Stevens record would be insane.
SS: Yeah, I would love to do something like that. But he’s a busy guy and he has that Black Sabbath band going at the moment. (Laughs).
RockMusicStar: Plus you have a lot going on yourself. Your summer tour with Billy Idol kicks off tomorrow on May 24th in Pechanga, Temecula, CA. How exciting and/or stressful is it the day before a tour starts for you?
SS: Well, this tour is cool because we have two gigs then we are back home. So if I forgot anything I can always get it then. But that’s it really. The only thing that worrisome is forgetting something. But as far as the band, we are well rehearsed. We actually rehearsed for two whole weeks, when many bands only rehearse for a week before a tour. So we are ready.
RMS: I checked out some of the live Billy Idol YouTube clips from late last year and really enjoyed them. I was amazed at the huge crowds that you were performing in front of and also the undeniable chemistry between Billy and you.
SS: Yes, Billy and I have worked together for thirty years and there’s a reason for that. Most bands don’t last that long. So, there is definitely something going on there. It’s not that easy to find that one musical partner. And we are friends as well; the whole band and crew really gets along. They are all really good people. So it’s fun. And also, my wife, Josie, tours with me; she arranges the meets n’ greets and stuff. So when we tour, it’s like being out with the family.
RMS: Can you sense a bit of Billy Idol resurgence in popularity? When it was announced that you were going to play in WNY at Artpark, Lewiston, it was the talk of the town.
SS: Yeah, maybe. When we made our career during the 80’s, you couldn’t pigeonhole us. We were a bit of punk rock, with heavy rock thrown in there. There is even some funk in songs like, “Flesh for Fantasy.” So musically that covers a lot of ground. We were fortunate that we didn’t get stuck in one type of style, like a “hair band” or anything like that. So our music appeals to a lot of different people.
RMS: You will be returning to the Western New York area to play a show on June 4th at the beautiful Artpark in Lewiston, NY. The last time that you performed in the Western New York area it was in 2005. What memories do you have of performing in Western New York?
SS: Well, before Billy Idol, I was in a cover band and we would play in Buffalo, NY quite a bit. It always seemed like it was super cold when I was there. But we played a lot, all over New York State. I had relatives that lived in Albany, NY and we played there a lot too. We did a lot of shows with Twisted Sister throughout New York and the tri-state area during that time.
RMS: What are the plans for Billy Idol and band after this tour? Are they any plans to record a new Billy Idol record in the near future?
SS: Yes, we have been writing and we have three new songs in our set. But, over the years we have always included new songs in our set, even though people haven’t heard them before. And then in August, we have plans to go back into the studio. We are speaking with a certain producer, I’m sorry that I can’t say who it is yet. But, if it happens, it’s going to be great.
RMS: You mentioned that you are good friends with Billy. But how would you describe your working relationship with him?
SS: We are like brothers. I don’t even think about it, because it’s not really even work to me. We spend a lot of time together. We go out to dinner, we enjoy hanging out together. Even though we are totally different people from different backgrounds, we really have a great chemistry together.
RMS: I find the “Billy Idol sound” to be rather interesting and unique. Billy came from a punk rock background, and you were into rock style; mixed together, it became this extremely commercially successful hybrid of rock/pop/dance. How long did it take to develop this style?
SS: It did take a while to come up with our own sound. The first album that we did together, “Billy Idol” in 1982, didn’t really sell that well, at first. It wasn’t until our second album, Rebel Yell, released in 1983, that people started buying the first album. On the first record, we toured and toured all of the clubs. I think if Billy had recruited another punk rock guitarist, like the one he had in his first band Generation X, I think that the music would have been a little more conventional. But with my influences, being essentially early 70’s rock, such as Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Jimi Hendrix, it gave us the ability to tap into a little more of a sonic tapestry. And then when you combine that with our producer at the time, Keith Forsey, when you mix all of those elements, you get the “Billy Idol sound,” which is a bit of Punk rock, Heavy rock and dance music.
We were actually doing extended remixes for our songs way before anyone else. I remember after we already did a few of them, many other bands were starting to do it as well; even a band like Def Leppard had a remix. So, I knew that we started something with that, because we were the first. But the minute that Billy sings, it sounds like Billy, there is no getting away from that.
RMS: Right, and with your unique guitar style it creates a sound unlike any other.
SS: I’ve always strived to do that, to use the guitar as my voice. I don’t sing, so I try to make my guitar identifiable. I’ve always felt that it’s not always about guitar technique, but it’s about guitar personality. That’s true with guys who don’t even have that much technique. Like Neil Young, he’s not a super technical guitarist by any means, but when you hear him play three notes, you know that it’s him. I have really strived for that, and I have for my entire career, to have that identifiable sound and style.
RMS: Mission accomplished. Now when you started writing and recording “Rebel Yell” during 1983, was there a lot of pressure on Billy and yourself to make a commercially successful follow? In other words, did you feel that it was do or die because the first record didn’t tear up the charts?
SS: The record business was very different back then. Now, bands have to have a hit right out of the gates, or they’re not given a second chance. We were really fortunate that our label, Chrysalis records and our A&R guy believed in developing an artist. If there was pressure, I didn’t feel it. We just wanted to have the best possible songs that we could have. But from the moment that we started to record that album, there was something in the air. We had finally gotten into a great recording studio, “Electric Lady” which was the studio that Jimi Hendrix had built. The quality of the stuff that we were getting was so good. And especially for me, being in the Hendrix-built studio was so inspiring. We could feel that we were raising the bar. Like with the songs – for example “Flesh for Fantasy” had a different chorus originally. We knew it could be better and we worked on it until it was better. But it wasn’t because we were under pressure to record a hit; it was more of a pressure to create quality songs.
RMS: That must have been an amazing time for all. I have a feeling that if you wrote a book about what you and Billy experienced during the height of your career during the 80’s that it would be quite the read.
SS: Well, I was so fortunate that while I had success with Billy, I also had the privilege to work with so many amazing people during the 80’s. I worked with Robert Palmer, Ric Ocasek, the Thompson Twins, and Michael Jackson. Anyone that was making records at the time, I knew. The amount of records that I turned down was crazy. I was just the guy, at the time, that was in demand. It was truly great to be able to work with that many good people.
RMS: Have you ever thought about writing an autobiography?
SS: Billy is working on one. I’m certainly not going do anything until after his book comes out, if at all. But the problem with all these rock books coming out Is that in order to sell a lot, the publisher wants you to have a book that’s sensational. And I’m really not that interested in rehashing who I got high with. To me that’s an old story. Bottom line, if you were in the music business during the 80’s, you were getting high. (laughs) Let’s just assume that. If I was going to do a book, it would be more on the music side and geared towards musicians.
RMS: Did collaborating with so many other artists ever cause any problems with Billy?
SS: No, I did not know of Billy having any problems with that at all. Even when I left the Billy Idol band to go and do my own thing, it was always understood that I would come back together at some point. Fortunately neither of us said anything bad in the press about each other. It was just that I needed to go off and do my own thing for a while and he understood. There was a mutual respect about that.
RMS: In 1988, you played guitar on a song called “Dirty Diana” with Michael Jackson. What was it like working with him?
SS: It was pretty amazing. The first phone call that I got about that was from Quincy Jones. And I was a big Quincy Jones fan, going back to the days when he was making Jazz records. To be in the studio with that guy was unbelievable. And Michael was a cool guy back then. When we recorded my tracks, there were only four people in the studio, no big entourage, just me, Michael, Quincy, and the engineer. I didn’t approach it any differently than working with Billy. I just recorded my part. It was fun; there was a lot of laughing. The whole time I was there, it was really light hearted. It was just a cool experience.
RMS: Wow! Then shortly after recording with Michael, you formed your own band, “Steve Stevens’ Atomic Playboys.” There was a lot of really extreme guitar on that release. In retrospect, how do you feel about that project?
SS: Well, for one thing it was very expensive and I lost a lot of money on it. (laughs) I was used to traveling in style with Billy Idol. So when I went out to tour with the Atomic Playboys, I wanted two buses. We also had hair and make-up people on the road with us, and we were just playing clubs at the time. (laughs). So it became really expensive. The album was expensive to record. The album cover was expensive; everything about that record was expensive. It just got to the point where I couldn’t afford to keep it going anymore. In hindsight, I recorded a record that I liked, but the way it was mixed makes it difficult for me to listen to it.
RMS: In 1993, you were recruited by Vince Neil for his solo band. You recorded one album with him called Exposed. That really was a great record with a lot of intense guitar on it. It was also very interesting that Exposed” was a straightforward 80’s-style heavy rock album made during the height of the grunge movement.
SS: We had no idea of the grunge movement at the time. (laughs) We were all pretty oblivious to that kind of stuff at the time. The record company would say things like, “Have you guys ever thought of wearing flannel shirts?” We were like …”what?” I don’t know if people know this or not, but before I did the Vince Neil record, I did a record with Michael Monroe.
RMS: That’s right, the band was called Jerusalem Slim.
SS: Yeah, that’s right. Well, anyways the record was released in Japan. But after recording the whole, we went in to mix it, and Michael was freaking out about all the guitar on it, and how it was too much heavy metal sounding. He was like, “why doesn’t this sound more like the New York Dolls?” And I told him that if he wanted this to sound like the New York Dolls, he had the wrong guitar player. I mean did he just wake up and realize that? (laughs) But that project fell apart. And Michael was really down on me because of my guitar style. He was complaining all the time that there was too much “fucking guitar.” So that played a bit of a mind trip on me. So then when I joined up with Vince, he was happy to have me play guitar. In that project, they wanted me to play as much guitar as possible with extended solos, and as many notes as possible. So for me, it was a validation that I can play my style of guitar and people do want to hear it. So, I was really happy to do that record. I really enjoyed that record. I feel that is it still a very good and solid record.
RMS: Yes, I agree. There are a lot of really good songs on that release. That only thing that stopped it from being huge, was that fact that it was released at the height of the grunge movement. If that album was released a few years earlier, I think that it would have sold a few million.
SS: Yeah, maybe. But when that record came out and it was obvious that MTV wasn’t going to support it, because they were already on Nirvana and so was our record company. But that was the start of some very difficult times for guitar players like me. Guys that were really technically gifted had to dumb it down. I mean I liked a lot of the grunge bands, but what they were doing was natural to them. But to have other musicians have to try to conform to that, it just wasn’t right. It was like it was uncool to have fun, or uncool to be larger than life onstage. Also, it was uncool to sing about girls and all the other fun stuff. And I think that for all those reasons, it opened the floodgates for rap music. They came out all blingy, and rapping about sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. They were thinking that if rockstars weren’t going to do it, then they would.
RMS: Yeah, you didn’t stick around with Vince for too long. You did the tour in which Vince Neil opened for Van Halen during the summer of 1993, and then a club tour after. Then you left.
SS: Yeah, I had to regroup. I was getting a bit tired of playing loud rock n’ roll, plus those kinds of records were not selling. So I thought that it was time to try something a little different. So that’s when I decided to record a Flamenco record. That was the style of music that I started out in, when I was a kid. But, everything happens for a reason. But right now, I’m just happy to be able to be playing guitar.
RMS: At the time, I think that a lot of fans were a little surprised that you decided to record a flamenco record. It’s certainly a lot different from your trademark style. It was an interesting move.
SS: Yeah, well at that time I had just gotten sober. I had a great experience doing that record. It was recorded at my home studio, and I had just moved to Los Angeles, CA. The record was mixed in Hawaii. It was a really healthy time for me as a guitar player. And I had a great opportunity to regroup. It was important for me as a guitarist.
RMS: You had to reinvent yourself in a way.
SS : Yeah! And I’ve taken a bit of that with me even today. I’ve taken a different approach to playing rock guitar because of [playing Flamenco].
RMS: On your tour with Billy Idol, you performed a little bit of Flamenco during yourspotlight guitar solo. And mixing that with rock really works, and it’s very different.
SS: Yeah, let’s be honest – as far as electric guitar solos, it’s not going to get much better than Eddie Van Halen doing his solo. So I’d rather do something that has meaning to me.
RMS: I would like to discuss the recent rumors that you are writing with Sebastian Bach for a new project with him. Is this true?
SS: ….Not really… We are friends, and he asked me to help write a few songs for his new record. But at this point, I don’t even know if it’s going to end up on his record. But we get together; we actually played the Viper Room a couple months ago. But that is really the extent of it.
RMS: Okay Steve, my last question is, you have accomplished so much during your career, but what do you consider to be the highlight so far?
SS: Well, the Billy Idol record, Rebel Yell was a big high point for me. We went from clubs and started to play in arenas. But if I had to single out one particular moment, it would probably be in 1986, when I won a Grammy Award for the song I did on the Top Gun soundtrack. Also on that awards show, later that night, I performed with Billy. So that whole night was pretty incredible and surreal. And I was mostly happy for my folks. I called them backstage from the Grammys and told them that I won and that meant a lot to them. Harold Faltermeyer, the composer whom I won the Grammy Award with, slaved over that soundtrack for months. But for me it only took me two and a half hours to record my part. But the whole experience was really cool, and I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to do it.
Special thanks to Josie Stevens for setting up this interview. And also Nelissa Thibado for her assistance.