Steven Van Zandt wears many hats. (OK, if we're being technical, he wears many bandannas.) The man better known as Little Steven has a lengthy musical résumé both as a solo artist and as a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, while a whole new generation knows him as mobster Silvio Dante on The Sopranos.
Yet another Van Zandt labor of love is his garage-rock radio show, Little Steven's Underground Garage, which is now airing in St. Louis on KLOU (103.3 FM) every Saturday night from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Van Zandt's show mixes his enthusiastic musings about beloved tunes with songs of the garage-rock persuasion, ranging from oldies (Yardbirds, Rolling Stones) to new favorites, such as the Soundtrack of Our Lives and Norwegian all-girl act the Cocktail Slippers.
On a recent morning, Little Steven chatted via phone about the origins and future of his show, and why he's so passionate about exposing future generations to the music he loves. Over the course of a 40-minute chat, the host was as affable, knowledgeable and laid-back as he is on the show.
Annie Zaleski: Being on the radio is a form of performing — one that's more public and at the same time less public than being onstage. How has being a musician helped you as a DJ?
Little Steven: I think it gives you a first-person aspect of it that is interesting. My audience enjoys the fact that I'm not a professional [Laughs]...I'm like an amateur that stumbles into the studio and just took over the mic. [Laughs] At the same time, you have a first-hand, first-person knowledge of what you're talking about to some extent, which I think people also appreciate. Half the people we're playing are either friends of mine or heroes of mine — or something directly related to my life — so there's no distance in between what I'm doing and saying and my own influence.
It's been a nice way of communicating personality, which is what we grew up with. You had a relationship with your DJ, you had a relationship with your radio station. You trusted them; you trusted them to turn you on to things. That's what I enjoy most — turning people on to the greatest music ever made, as far as I'm concerned. The center of the universe for us is the British Invasion of '64, '65, '66. That stuff holds up amazingly well. It never gets old. It never gets boring.
At the same time, you're connecting the dots, which doesn't happen often enough. We talk about the writers, we talk about the producers, we talk about which band influenced who. And then we're playing the greatest music out there in the world right now, and where it comes from. It's all connected together, and done by somebody who's still out there on the road and still able to run into new bands and go to record stores in Norway and Spain and have them turn you on to something. It's sort of a traveling-DJ aspect of being a musician, I think, that people also enjoy.
A few years ago, there was the new garage-rock movement. Have you found that the movement had a lasting impact on music? And if so, what's the impact been?
Well, not yet. If you look at how I define garage rock — which is essentially just traditional rock & roll — it's a little bit early in the day, in a funny way. You can define the beginning of it anywhere after the Beatles, really, as early as '65 or so with a group called Them, with Van Morrison basically copying Mick Jagger's vocal style. In that sense it's always been there, that third-generation rock & roll that came directly from the second-generation of British Invasion guys. From time to time, [garage] surfaced and [had] gone back [underground] in a bit, but never really became a successful movement.
So it really has not happened — ever, really. We're a bit ahead of the trend as far as it becoming fashionable or breaking through. It never quite has, and I don't think it will until we get a TV show on that reflects the radio show — which we've been trying to do for a few years now, and we will eventually do it. At that point, I think there will be a very significant breakthrough. And it will finally happen, maybe in a permanent way, and remain a niche. But right now, traditional rock & roll isn't even a niche in the marketplace. So of course, it has no real format except ours. It's very hard to hear new rock & roll records. You can hear new indie rock or hip-hop or pop or metal or this or that, but you can't hear new rock & roll anywhere. It's very, very weird.
That's so weird to me, because the music seems so accessible. I can't really wrap my brain around that...
No, it's difficult. To be honest, it was a bit of a shock to me. I wasn't aware of it. We've been on seven years, so this is going back probably nine years or so, nine or ten years. But I said, I don't know, I'd like to do a little radio show — I'll go on, I'll play some of my favorite records. I thought, no big deal about it. And it was only when people started rejecting the idea that I started to take a closer look at it and realize, my God, the mainstream, from 1965 to certainly to 1995 or so, 30 years of the mainstream — and that rock & roll is no longer welcome! It's an absolute endangered species, it's been driven underground and everybody rejected my show. Everybody.
It's the same show it is now, there's nothing scary about it. We're playing some things that aren't familiar — what I call the F-word — but so what? I'm playing things that are great, and greatness is greatness. And I'm sure that people would respond, and of course, they have. I had to fight to get on the radio. [And] this is after The Sopranos' first season, this is after the Springsteen reunion, I had a bit of a celebrity capital going for me — and nobody could care less! [Laughs]
People must really hate the music!
Yeah, you know, I thought, I'm probably going to be the most famous DJ in Montana, aren't I? But nobody wanted it. It was really shocking to me — and intolerable. Intolerable. I'm not going to allow this to happen. I can't allow this to happen. The next generation will never be able to hear real rock & roll. That's terrible! What a terrible legacy our generation is leaving behind. We decided we needed to fix this, and fix it now, before it got any worse.
And we're well on the way to having done that. We're quite an institution now. We're in over 200 cities, [we have] over a million listeners now. It's quite good now, in good shape. Everybody's no longer afraid of us. It was extremely important to say, "Enough. We need to have something on like this for kids to hear it." The older people obviously are going to enjoy it, but I wanted the thirteen-year-olds to hear what the early Rolling Stones sounded like, the Beatles, the Kinks and the Yardbirds. It's important to me.