Steve Stevens: 'Guitars Are Tools To Help Me Translate What's In My Head'

artist: Steve Stevens date: 03/11/2008 category: interviews
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Steve Stevens: 'Guitars Are Tools To Help Me Translate What's In My Head'
Steve Stevens is best known as the coiffed strummer behind Billy Idol. Those staccato bursts of machine gun guitar still resonate on radio and on those classic Idol records like Billy Idol and Rebel Yell. But Stevens is much more. He is an accomplished acoustic/flamenco player as presented on his 1999 Flamenco A Go Go album released several years. He is a presence as a studio player (having recorded with everyone from Peter Criss and Ric Ocasek to Jizzy Pearl and Derek Sherinian) and has his own solo career that was established back in 1989 with his Atomic Playboys recording. Recently, he recorded Memory Crash, a neo-modern metal instrumental record that brings in elements of the classic styles offered up by the likes of Dave Gilmour and Jimi Hendrix, and also reaches forward in the use of digital recording techniques, programmed drums, and contemporary guitar effects. Ultimate Guitar: When does the time come when you say, Hey listen, I want to go in and do a record or I need to go in and put down my musical thoughts? Steve Stevens: Right, yeah. Well, I mean the last solo thing I did was entirely acoustic based; it was a flamenco record (Flamenco A Go Go) and um and after that I sort of threwmyself back into Billy Idol world and we spent the last four years touring and you know did Devil's Playground which was Billy's last record. And then we were on the road consistently and playing to uhn a lot of places we'd never played before; Russia, Serbia, and you know 'cause back in the day we didn't really tour those places. And what I realize that it was cool again to be a guitar player. Um there was this whole period in the 90's, where grunge happened and it was like you know, you almost had to dumb down yourself. I think it was an important development in music, but you know, I can't hide the fact I'd been playing that fuckin' instrument for forty years. You know, you do anything for forty years your going to be pretty good at it. So, I started to see a whole new generation of kids, especially with YouTube and it was kinda cool to be proficient on your instrument again. But not for the sake of just being technically proficient. I think I kind of hit on this area and style which is progressive punk, you know. It's like punk rock attitude, punk groove and kind of an aesthetic feeling, but also progressive in the sense that in the music that I grew up on was the early 70's English guitar scene which was all the early prog guys like Robert Fripp and Steve Howe and David Gilmore. So I felt there was um you know, I had a yearning to do a record that was you know really adventurous and not just a bunch of solos thrown together. I mean the way I work it, the last thing I'm concerned with is my guitar playing; I kinda know what that is. So, I'm really more into composition and drum and bass groove and um, I think that's what make my record a little bitdifferent then your average shred record. I don't listen to those kind of records, I mean more power to the guys that do those kind of records, but they just kind of bore me and hopefully my record's not boring. So then you wouldn't put yourself into that same sort of shred instrumental rock guitar player kind of thing? Hopefully not. It's so hard to describe what you do because you touched earlier on the Flamenco thing and I know you started on acoustic and that really informs your electric playing. Yeah, I think that would apply to a lot of guitar players that I certainly would apply to Jimmy Page. He's a fantastic acoustic player and writes amazing acoustic compositions and his electric parts are big and monumental and you know the big riff is still the most important thing. And it's not about um, for me, it's always the better the guitar sound the least amount of notes you have to play. 'Cause there's a bunch of notes taking up space and you're not breathing you know. We did an interview back in '89 for the Atomic Playboys album and you said, The better the guitar sound the less notes you have to play. It's the sound between the notes that makes the solo really important and interesting. It's so brilliant in the fact that you would bring that back up. I really believe in that. Yeah, wow that's unbelievable. I'm a big fan of movies and I draw inspiration on films a lot and the thing that, if the movie was a great chase scene or fight scene for the entire 90 minutes, it'd be really boring. You know its how you set up those actions scenes and the thing you'll always notice in the film, as soon as there a climatic part of the chase or fight it's always followed by this serene kind of release you know that applies to everything in life. You know even sex you know. Is it always in pursuit of the ultimate guitar tone then? Probably, I mean um, on this record I kinda embraced um, I've never been known to play a Strat in a kinda Hendrixy style, but I think that's kind of strong on this record. Especially with doing The Day Of the Eagle and also the track, Cherry Vanilla. I've always been known as a Les Paul kind of sound. And one thing I found withusing a Strat, it's a harder guitar to play and it's a harder guitar to get a sound out of. But it's a, if you kinda do it in that cool Hendrixy thing, you know it allows me to write in a whole different way. So and as I said I've been playing guitar for forty years so I'm looking for places where uncharted territory to keep me fresh. Where you a Robin Trower fan? One of the first records I got as kid was, Bridge of Sighs and I remember at the time everyone, a lot of people were getting really down on Robin Trower because they thought he was like the poor man's Hendrix or something. And I think it was so fresh in people's minds because Hendrix had passed away and, How do you follow the foot steps of Jimi Hendrix? I think enough time had passed when, by the time Stevie Ray Vaughn had came out, he didn't suffer the same comparisons because Hendrix had been you know had been gone for so long. Um, but now when looking back when you listen to Robin Trower's stuff, you really go, Wow, this guy really, yeah he was inspired by Hendrix but he had his own thing going on and I always loved Day Of The Eagle and when the opportunity came to work with Dug Pinnick from King's X, I thought that would be great to him to sing on that. You playing the Strat and working with Doug were attempts to break out of that Les Paul thing a little bit? Exactly. The sound of the guitar is just unbelievable, man. Can you talk a little bit about the gear on that song? Yeah, well the guitar is a John Suhr Strat; it was actually uh, I think it was built for Scott Henderson and Scott didn't want the guitar and I called John and said, Hey, do you happen to have a cool Strat type of guitar? I had gone out to John's factory and he showed me this new technology he has with the noise canceling, which is basically where they build a coil into the body of the guitar. Any time I had tried a Strat before with hum canceling pickups, it never sounded like a Strat anymore. This you can use your standard Strat pickups, single coil, and it still retains all the sound of a Strat but none of the noise. So I used that guitar and I recorded most of the track at the studio where Doug Pinnick was record his solo record, which is Black Sound. And um, I didn't bring an amp or anything, they had an amp. I think a Randall, which is those amps that have those modules in there. I was familiar with that; I have one of those. I just kind of wound up a decent sound and I thought well, We'll get the track done and if I need to replace the guitar track later or something. But, it turned out cool. I didn't want to, I might of taken a pass at overdubbing the guitar but it lost something in the live vibe. The fact it was just three musicians in a room playing, feeding off each other. You couldn't replicate that once you stared adding things. So it's basically one guitar track; I overdubbed the solo in the middle and that's it. It's pretty stripped down and basic. And what about Cherry Vanilla? It sounds like a lot of different things going on in there? Yeah, Cherry Vanilla same guitar, Suhr Strat with a little 18 watt amp built by John Suhr called a Badger. And it's that guitar through the Badger but I think I'm also using a Fox Rocks flanger called a Through-Zero flanger. And it's really the only pedal I used that really sounds like tape flanging. So much so that I got a ProTools rig and ProTools have some plug-ins that they claim that sound like tape flanging and they don't do it half as well as this little pedal. So I had that pedal for four years and every now and again, Dave Fox will email me, Hey, when I'm I going to hear you use it? And, Hey, I finally used that sucker.
"I can't hide the fact I'd been playing that f--kin' instrument for forty years."
You touch on the ProTools thing, Steve. Has the evolution of studios been a tool for you in terms of realizing more fully guitar tones and being able to do ten thousand runs of a solo if you needed to? Yeah, I approach it much like a you know, like a tape recorder. It's just I don't really uh, I'm not that savvy with editing and things like that. I use it to capture what I've got here; I still have all older mic pres, old mics you know. I use the couple of Royer Ribbon mics, which are pretty much old technology. API mic pres, uhm you know, Manley compressors and stuff. So I got a lot. You know, I got a lot of out board analog stuff and you know optimately it's great to capture drums on analog tape. You know, I have a home studio and uh I don't have that luxury so. Actually most of the stuff on the record was recorded with me, I program the drums and with a program called, BFD. And uhm, and then brought all my tracks into the studio and had Brian Tishy, Billy Idol's drummer, replace the drums and if any tracks of mine didn't fit with the live drums then I would re-record them. You know, kinda glued the tracks together. But the entire record was recorded to uh, to programmed drums. Is Brian someone you wanted to play with? Yeah um, I mean, he's a fabulous drummer and he's also a great guitarist as well. He's played with, you know, everybody from Zakk Wylde to Slash. He understands guitar players and when we get in the studio I, we speak the same language. I don't have to explain to him, you know, the dynamics of what I'm doing; he gets it. And we don't have to fuck around with arrangements. Basically I MP3'd him all the tracks; he learned them; we got in the studio and he just played them through and I remember, I was amazed when, it must have been three in the morning when we finally got to Day Of The Eagle and he just killed it. I was just laughin' because it's three in the morning and I'm like barely hangin' in you know, I don't have the stamina to hang in the studio that late anymore. And Brian was just killin' it. It was one take; you know most of the drum tracks were one take. Anything we would go back and patch up a couple of things and uh, you know it was very minor and I would say for the majority of the guitar stuff is really one take. There wasn't a lot of editing and stuff uh, you know. I mean the record took me quite a while because, to be honest composing it, took longer than anything and I played all the bass and all the keyboards on the record. Um, so it's like you know ,that stuff is pretty time consuming. But actually capturing it didn't take that long. Steve, was there sort of a main guitar/amp setup for you? Um, yeah, well I kinda setup two different scenarios with two different amps. If it was going to be a clean sound then I used a Victoria Regal amp which is basically it's a Victoria Amp but it's based on the Supro Thunderbolt and it's got a 15 speaker in it which is kinda an oddball for guitar. It's nice and big and clean and you can put pedals in front of it and they really translate well. So that was kinda my clean guitar sound. And then for the heavy stuff um, I had a number of different amps. A Naylor which is a 60 watt kinda Marshall based. Uh, a Suhr OD100 which is like a super hot rodded, high gain amp; and then I have one Marshall that I recorded Rebel Yell with, that hadn't been working for a number of years and um Dave Freedman over at Rack Systems got that amp back up and running for me. It's a 1970's Marshall, not a plexi but a metal face and for me it had a sentimental value knowing that I recorded Rebel Yell with it and you know I was like having that amp back kinda, I guess it was kinda like a little bit of a security thing, like I know that amp works. I know I can make music on it you know. And it's still a fuckin' great sounding amp. And what were the types of guitars, Steve? Um, a lot of Les Pauls. Um, you know I have my own model pickup out with Bare Knuckles and most of my guitars are loaded with that. It's called, The Rebel Yell. It's a small company out of England and Tim Mills, who's the founder of the company, is also an incredible guitar player. And I met him when I was in the UK; we played at the Download Fest with Billy and I got to meet Tim. And I contacted him; I had an idea that this guy was making really great pickups just by what I read. And I know that Gary Moore is using them; they're the shit. What makes them so much better or different than a Duncan or something? Hand-wound. A lot of the materials that he needed to make the pickups with weren't manufactured anymore. So, I think in the UK you know, there's a lot of smaller companies still existing where in the US it's really hard to have a, you know to run a small company. And so he contacted a lot of these, you know, magnet um manufacturers and wire manufacturers in the UK and if they weren't available he would, you know, commission them to build these things. So he winds the pickups by hand, they're scatter wound which means they're not exactly humbucking because one coil is wound hotter than the other. The only way I can describe it is like a humbucker pickup that has this, the range of the single coil. So, you get a little bit more air in the pickup and you, it's more top end, you can drive the amp better, it's harmonically a little bitmore savvy, uh and I'm addicted to his pickups. I don't play any other guitar pickups, these are just aboutI mean he makes about fifteen different models; all of them are incredible. So, I used about four Les Pauls loaded with different model Bare Knuckle pickups. Um, I brought out of retirement my Charvel San Dimas which was in pretty bad shape and kinda got that together again and loaded in a Bare Knuckle um, patent applied for and that kinda brought the guitar back to life. Let's see what else did I use, I mean a bunch of differentuh Collings acoustic, all the acoustic guitar on the record is a Collings which was a gift from a Japanese artist I work with and it's become my favorite acoustic guitar. For the nylon string stuff it's a um, Pedro de Miguel flamenco, which is a hand made flamenco guitar. Let's see here, bass guitar was all Warwick stuff. I think I used one or two bass guitars on the entire record; one was a five string I needed. Um, let's see what else, ummm I mentioned the Suhr guitar, Les Pauls. Um I gotta take a look around here and see what else. Are these new and old Les Pauls, Steve? Um yeah. I mean the oldest one I have is a '88. You know I'm not a purist in, Oh I gotta have a 1950's I've just never been that way. I don't collect guitars; I use them, they're tools to help me translate what's in my head. And um, yeah, sure it'd be nice to own a half a million-dollar guitar or something but I can think of better ways to spend my money. I believe what I know, I can get a brand new Les Paul, off the shelf, loaded in pickups, have it refretted, use different poteniometers in it and make it sound asgood as an old guitar. I know people will be like, No fuckin' way, but to me personally that's all I need. Steve, what was your main guitar during the Billy Idol days? With Rebel Yell, it was a Kramer Pacer, and I remember I just gotten that guitar and it was the first guitar I had with the Floyd Rose on it. So, it was some of that and also a Les Paul that Billy had bought me that was a 1953; it originally had a wrap around bridge on it and then somebody had put a Nashville-style bridge, you know, a regular Tune-o-matic on it. Um, it had '59 Patent Applied For's in it. Unfortunately that guitar saw a really bad fate on it; the neck kept cracking off of it, like three times. And after three times I just said, Ah, you know it's not gonna hold together. And by then it didn't even sound good anymore, so. And then I think starting with Whiplash Smile, I used the Charvel San Dimas that I have. And I used that guitar for the Top Gun anthem and Michael Jackson stuff, I mean any record I recorded back then that that was anything notable was done with that Charvel, uh San Dimas. I've been actually talking to Grover in the last couple of weeks. If you speak to him, tell him I'm still playin' that guitar. It's a great guitar. So lets talk a little bit about the tracks, Steve. On the title track, there's this real lo-fi guitar sound going on? I think with that, I had the title of the album; I knew what I wanted to call the album. And I think I had about six tracks already done and I actually really needed a title track and I thought well I've done a number of songs that are guitar all the way through and I thought well this title thing is about technology failing and um, everybody'swe just had a phone conversation and my phone failed (while we were talking Steve's cell phone signal dropped and he was forced to call me back). So I thought it'll be great to capture the sound of my computer failing on me so I just typed in memory crash and I sampled that and came up with a couple of riffs and the beginning guitar thing was me knockin' about with ProTools you know coming up with the intro thing. I mean, a lot of it is real trial and error; I'll always work on the rhythm track first and then with that song I got about 75% of that together and then started working on the top line melody against it. I'm so used to working with singers that I just approached my guitar melody line as if it were the vocal.
"I'm looking for places where uncharted territory to keep me fresh."
So you're thinking as a singer then when playing these lead instrumental lines? Trying to or a least the impression that a singer would give so that you know, I'm telling a story although I'm not using words. Hopefully the guitar is telling a story both in melody and in sometimes sound effects and things. But I still, the structure of my music is still the same as if I was writing a pop song. It still comes for me if you look at my ProTools session it still says, Verse, Chorus, Cross Section, Bridge, Chorus, you know it's not like riff A, riff B or you know it's still pop tradition. In talking about approach the guitar like a vocalist, do you think Billy influenced your guitar playing at all? Yeah, we used to have the jokes that betweenthe majority of those records were done with Billy, myself and his producer, Keith Forsey. And I'd come up with some guitar stuff and Keith would always laugh and he'd say, Let's see if it passes the 'Punk Police'? and that was like the uhI guess a lot of guitar players could have been frustrated by that because Billy would come in and I'd have a solo or some part and he'd simplify it and that was the Punk Police but really he was getting to the root of the idea. He was likeI think it helped me, I think it gave me a strong sense of get to the idea which is what is cool and maybe the stuff around it is the extraneous stuff which you don't really need. Um, one thing that afforded my guitar playing a rhythmatic sense was um, I think in the '80s a lot of guitars players worked with singers that had higher voices and because Billy was sort of more in the Jim Morrison vein, my guitar took on a weight because everything was kinda pitched lower, you know. So that if I was doing all this kinda high stuff, I mean the majority of my rhythm stuff is based on the bottom three strings anyway you know, and uh, if you do a lot of this other stuff it becomes a little light. If you think about the Zepplin riffs and stuff, all the great Zepplin riffs are really based on those bottom three strings. And then allows you as you know, to orchestrate your guitar parts you know, to allow other parts to take their own place in the mix. There's only so much room available in a song sonically and if you've got frequencies and parts that are fighting each other you are going to end up with a very small sounding song. Billy's band was primarily a three piece with him as the singer? Yeah, I mean we had keyboards but they were always kinda an after-thought you know. Very few songs were constructed around keyboards, although later on you know keyboards became more important on like, Whiplash Smile. And that's primarily one of the reasons I left because I'm a guitar player. I mean seriously was that one of the reasons? Yeah, I mean it waswe had toured behind Rebel Yell for ten months; had this shit-hot band and then we go into the studio to do a follow-up record and I'm sitting in front of a Lynn drum you know and I'm like, Wait a minute, what did we just learn here? Didn't we learn that we make rock 'n' roll records? I just want to pull out one last bit about Billy here. White Wedding, your rhythm on the verses is different. The accents seem so strange but they're perfect. Well that was really influenced by athere was a band in New York that Billy and I used to go see and it was called, Suicide. And it was a singer/keyboard player; it was only two people on stage. It was the keyboard player was Marty Rev and the singer was Allen Vega. And Allen was sort of this weird kinda Elvis, like this out-of-space Elvis Puerto Rican guy and Marty Rev would play the bass lines with his left hand and then he'd do these keyboard stabs against it. And I remember they had this song called, The Ghost Rider, and it had these kinda staccato dotted 1/8th rhythm to it and I thought it was so cool. When we were working on White Wedding I said, What if I do like a Marty Rev idea with the guitar? and that's that guitar figure that comes in on the second verse, so I think I was looking at keyboard parts more than guitar parts. Back to your record, Josephine is the last song on the record? Um yeah, that's me singing on it. Yeah, it' a, I finallymy fiance, her name is Josephine I've been makin' records for twenty-five years, I've never written a love song to uh anybody. But I don't want to sound too hokey but I found my soul mate; I absolutely adore her and we're a real team. She enjoys what I do and she's really a part of it. It's great to really have that element in my life and I felt like saying, Thank you, and that's all that song is. It's just a thank you to my fiance. Have you ever tried to pursue the singing more? Oh God, no. No way. It's reallyplaying guitar is one thing. I'm critical of my guitar playing, but I canI think I'm good enough at it that I'm okay. There's nothing that, unless I play something horribly out of tune, I don't cringe, but doing vocals man. I gotta tell you, I have so much respect for singers 'cause it's so personal, it's soto have nothing to hide behind like a guitar or drums or something. You're just out there bare and um, it's tough. For me, it's really tough. And of course, there's technology to make you sound better, but really you know either you have an emotion behind what you're singing or you don't. I didn't reallyto me it wasn't really important whether if I was in pitch or in key it's just something that I really wanted to put on my record, for emotional reasons. Here in 2008 we have the ability to listen to a song on our iPods and satellite radio, on-line sitesdo you think in some ways the proliferation of the availability of so much music in a way diminishes the arrival of a new record? I think we're at a crossroads. I mean certainly buying a record now is not going to be the same experience for somebody as it was for me in the mid-70's. I mean those were like almost like mythic figures that you'd see them on TV or the only time you could only see those bands was when I'd go see Yes or The Who or something. It was like they came from another planet, only in your town. It's never gonna be like that again but that's said, we're seeing really the blue print for what will be the future and it's evening out the playing field. I mean the big record companies are the dinosaurs and they're dying. And they missed the boat you know; they were asleep at the wheel, which is really good for a record like mine because I don't have to play that game. I don't have to be indebted to a large corporation which will take a minimum of $200,000.00 to do publicity and press. Um, you know I'm an established enough artist to use avenues you know that are available to me and to other smaller you know I look at this record as a baby band. But mind you, I have my own studio, it's not costing me a terrible amount to make my record and I don't have, I couldn't imagine having to answer to an A&R guy telling me we have to bring in Scott Storch as a producer or something. I just couldn't imagine, I'd be like, I don't want to do this. Fortunately with Billy we do what we do and you know we're able to certainly to play to a much bigger audience because the world is much smaller now and I'm in a much better place. My ego does not need to be satisfied by big budgets and limousines and all this other crap that I bought into back in the day. You know, I don't think you can live an isolated life and really write meaningful music. I think you have to be amongst the people and you know, I know it sounds a little bit corny, but I think that's, you know, keeping in contact with the emotions on that level is what keeps you healthy as a human being. And if you're a healthy human being that makes music, your gonna make good music. And that's really it. Healthy mind - healthy body - healthy music (laughs).
"This record represents where I'm at now musically and I think there's enough stuff on it that people never heard me do."
Did you follow or hear any of the Van Halen re-union or Police, Cream? Yeah, I haven't seen the Police but I did go to the Van Halen rehearsal here at the Forum and of course every guitar player in town was there. We're all paying homage and it was incredible. I was really impressed with Roth I gotta say; he sounded better than he ever had. Um, all the guys were in really great shape and just to hear those songs back to back, you know. When I was with Vince Neil we supported Van Halen during Sammy Hagar time and they were great. But when you hear those songs from the first four records it's rock n' roll, it's really special. I had a fuckin' great time; I was just grinning from ear to ear. You have a relationship with Ed. He certainly knows who you are. Yeah, it was funny. The first time I met Ed, he had called me to go do that NAMM show that I guess you were at (I was there with Edward). I had just worked on that Michael Jackson, Dirty Diana. So we had that in common (Van Halen played on Jackson's Beat It), we talked about that and then we had both come to the same conclusion about amps and somewhat. I read about some thing that he was doing guitar wise that I nicked. But as far as what he was doing to Marshalls on the west coast was pretty much what myself and my amp guy, Henry Yee, was doing in New York. We were traveling along very similar paths. So although I did not take it to the degree that Ed did, he was much further along with using Variacs and stuff and he was definitely in the forefront in that. But our yearning for that Marshall sound was very similar. I think what we were hearing in our head was very similar. And beyond Ed, do you listen to other players?I mean are there any other players that will pave the way in years to come? Yeah, it's not so much players that are musically or technically as much, but I find myself liking bands more you know. Like Muse I think are really cool; Mars Volta, very cool. So there's some good new music being made. Um, I still think U2 are avalid band; I still love hearing the Edge play. He's got the cool sounds you know. So Steve, when you sit back and the record is done and it's come out of your own studio and all the ideas are finally there on tape and stuff, does it feed your soul. Yeah, you know I don't think I'm ever you know, I've never done a record where I've been totally 100% satisfied, you know; you always remember the mistakes more then the conquest. I remember when we finished Rebel Yell I couldn't listen to that thing for six months, I was just likeyeah, you was just burnt on it. Now I hear it and I go, Wow, that's pretty damn good, but back then I'd thought, Uh, Jesus, you know. Um so I'm just like you know I'm pretty, pretty, really, really critical of what I do. But this record was really enjoyable; you know it represents where I'm at now musically and I think there's enough stuff on it that people never heard me do that gives me you know the sense of accomplishment. You know, I'm not treading the same old water and I'm not just, you know, I'm not trying to recreate something that I did twenty-five years ago you know. 2008 Steven Rosen
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